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The Mandarin and the Butterfly

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"The Mandarin and the Butterfly" is a short story by L. Frank Baum, one of his American Fairy Tales first published in 1901.

Summary

One Chinese mandarin is noted for his bad disposition, his "cross and disagreeable" personality. "He snarled and stormed at every person he met and was never known to laugh or be merry under any circumstances." And he hated children especially.

Eventually, no one will speak to him; and the Emperor exiles him to America. Before leaving, the exile steals a great book of magic and takes it with him to the New World. The mandarin settles in a Midwestern city and opens a laundry. He retains his grumpy nature; the local children torment him by staring into his laundry through the front window, every day after school.

One day, a large and beautifully-colored butterfly flutters into the mandarin's shop. The mandarin captures it and pins its wings to the wall, leaving it alive. Using his book of magic, the mandarin prepares a potion that allows him to understand and speak the butterfly language. The mandarin makes a bargain with the insect: he will spare its life if the bug obeys his commands. The butterfly agrees: though it admits to being short-lived, it also concedes that more life is preferable to death. (The insect has no soul, and therefore no afterlife; but it notes that it has already enjoyed three existences, as caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly.)

The mandarin prepares another potion, which will turn children into pigs. He orders the butterfly to dip its front legs in the liquid, then land on the foreheads of children to transform them. The butterfly agrees. It dips its legs, then flies out the door...and promptly ignores its instructions. Though sometimes chased by children, the butterfly has no malice against them. Later the insect returns to the laundry (it fears that otherwise the mandarin will magically kill it), and claims to have turned a golden-haired little girl into a pig. (Since the butterfly has no soul, it has no conscience, and lies with equanimity.)

This continues for some days; the mandarin sends the butterfly out each morning, and the butterfly returns to lie about its activities. The insect never bothers children; but once its curiosity prompts it to try the potion on a pig. The pig is transformed into a nasty little boy, who torments animals and slaps and steals from other children. Disgusted, the butterfly turns him back into a pig. (The butterfly has no soul...but it does have a heart.)

In their next interview, the butterfly claims to have turned a Chinese child into a pig. The mandarin, forgetting his hatred of Chinese children, irrationally and angrily slaps the bug, nearly breaking its wing. The next time the butterfly dips its legs in the potion, it flies directly into the mandarin's face. People who come to pick up their laundry are surprised to find a pig in the shop.

Background

"The Mandarin and the Butterfly" is one of the eight stories in the collection illustrated by Ike Morgan.

Baum's treatment of the Chinese in this tale shows the condescending humor that was common in his time, but which is found distasteful and unacceptable today. In contrast, Baum's portrayal of the butterfly is sympathetic and nuanced. It is noteworthy that the animals in the American Fairy Tales often behave better, and are more sensible or sympathetic, than the people; see "The Laughing Hippopotamus" and "The Wonderful Pump" for examples.

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